Debbie Ortega Wants Lengthy Political Career to end in Denver Mayor's Office | Westword

The Contenders: Debbie Ortega Wants Her Long Political Career to End in Mayor's Office

Even before she was first elected to Denver City Council in 1987, she had experience working for public officials.
Debbie Ortega has had a lengthy political career in Denver.
Debbie Ortega has had a lengthy political career in Denver. City of Denver
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This is the seventh in our series on the Denver mayoral candidates, based on their responses to a Westword questionnaire sent to every contender on the ballot last month; see PBS12's "Humanizing" piece on Debbie Ortega below.

No mayoral candidate has had a longer career in politics than Debbie Ortega. A district councilwoman from 1987 to 2003 and then an at-large member of Denver City Council from 2011 through today, Ortega worked with Denver's Road Home on the issue of homelessness between her council stints.

And before Ortega was first elected to office, she worked for a lieutenant governor, a U.S. senator and a Denver City Council member.

As some of her biggest political achievements, Ortega cites her work pushing a cleanup of environmental waste in Globeville and Elyria-Swansea, and her efforts to bring preservationists and property owners in LoDo together to stave off inappropriate development. In her free time, Ortega loves to make jewelry; she says she gives away all of her favorite pieces.

Ortega won't have much free time if she's elected mayor. Although Denver may be in the mood for change after twelve years of the same administration, Ortega views her own lengthy political experience as a strength.

Why are you running for mayor?

Denver needs to chart a new course: challenges with attainable housing, community safety and homelessness have set us back. As the only candidate with four decades in public service, and one elected citywide three times, I am uniquely equipped to solve our issues. Under my leadership, Denver will become an affordable, safe and prosperous city, with a thriving downtown and an equitable transportation system that closes gaps in connectivity. Housing will be attainable across all price points, and income will not be a barrier to calling Denver home. I’ve given my life to this city and am wholeheartedly committed to its future. I understand its inner workings and am ready to hit the ground running with real solutions to create the future we deserve.

What is your plan to tackle homelessness?

Our unhoused population is as diverse as the rest of us, which includes children, elderly women, veterans and victims of domestic violence. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to support those experiencing homelessness and prevent people from slipping into the cycle of homelessness. Additionally, the deadly drugs on our streets are exacerbating mental illness, which requires investment in treatment beds. Not only do we need to create innovative and lasting solutions to house more people — such as single-room occupancy (SRO) housing — we need to address the underlying causes of homelessness, behavioral and mental health, and substance misuse.

We need long-term solutions, including dynamic wraparound services to help our unhoused neighbors reach self-sufficiency and regain their sense of self-worth, pride and purpose. Given the millions of taxpayer dollars spent in Denver on the issue of homelessness, our communities — both housed and unhoused — deserve better results. That’s why, when I’m elected, on day one I will marshal and coordinate resources from local, state and federal organizations by declaring homelessness a public emergency.

Would you end homeless encampment sweeps?

I will enforce the camping ban — to save lives. The challenge is, how do we intervene with people in crisis who will accept treatment, and how to work with those who will not?  It is not a crime to be homeless, but it is inhumane to watch a person suffer on our streets. Unhoused individuals experience the harsh weather conditions in the winter and summer months. The camping ban is a necessary tool to require that those who are moved are met with a safe place and resources to help them address any challenges they are currently experiencing that are keeping them on the streets. We will identify their needs by connecting them to local and regional resources that will have a positive, uplifting impact on their lives. The regional approach mentioned above would focus on resources like job-training programs to re-skill and up-skill and address substance misuse counseling services.

What is your plan to improve public safety in Denver?

I am proud to have the endorsement and confidence of city employees from Lodge 27 Fraternal Order of Police, the designated collective bargaining organization for Denver deputy sheriffs, as well as Denver Firefighters Local 858 and the Colorado Professional Fire Fighters. Throughout my career in public service, I’ve been an advocate for creating a safer and more welcoming Denver. I serve on the Crime Prevention and Control Commission and was an original co-sponsor of the ordinance that created the Public Safety Review Commission, which addresses police and sheriff accountability for allegations of misconduct on cases reviewed by the Internal Investigation units. As Mayor, I will continue my dedication to addressing both the root causes of crime and enforcing laws to make Denver a safer place to live and work. Tackling these issues simultaneously will build respect and trust between law enforcement and the community they serve and protect.

I’ll start by standing up a metro task force focused on stopping the supply of lethal drugs and guns in our community while cracking down on car, bike and catalytic converter theft. We must also invest in recruitment, retention and training to stem the loss of personnel in public safety departments and increase neighborhood safety. Additionally, we should allocate more resources towards Denver’s Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) program, so qualified mental health professionals can resolve nonviolent scenarios while the police can focus on keeping us safe. Last but not least, we must focus on prevention by providing youth supports such as reinvigorating our parks and recreation department’s engagement of our youth to provide alternative pathways and healthy recreation, training and employment opportunities.

How will you work with Denver Public Schools to improve education and safety in schools?

Denver students deserve resources that keep them safe, and the recent tragedies of gun violence, as well as information shared by Superintendent Alex Marrero about the presence of guns in our schools, should be an alarming concern. If parents, teachers and kids ask for a return of School Resource Officers, we should listen to them. Additionally, our kids deserve accessible and discreet counseling support, such as the Second Wind Fund, well-paid teachers and staff who can develop a welcoming and safe environment, and resources that help quench our students’ thirst for knowledge.

When elected, I will ensure that existing communication silos are removed so the City can best support Denver Public Schools. I will reconvene the City-School Coordinating Committee that I helped to create, which brings together the executive leadership of the City and Denver Public Schools to address ongoing and emerging school and safety issues.

What is your stance on the Park Hill Golf Course development proposal?

As the only elected candidate in this race who had to take a formal position on the Park Hill Golf Course, I supported moving it forward to the voters, so they have a voice in this important decision.

Development of this private property will address many of our city’s greatest needs by creating 100 acres of parks and open space and 25 percent new affordable-housing units, including for-sale units, giving more Denverites the opportunity for home ownership. These community benefits will be recorded as restrictive covenants on the land, if approved by the voters.

How can Denver significantly expand its affordable-housing stock?

Denver received roughly $77 million for housing programs from the American Rescue Plan Act, and our city should be able to show better results for those in need of an affordable place to call home. While we have taken steps in the right direction — including expanding programs to redevelop properties and create housing for individuals living in encampments — we clearly can be investing our funds more strategically to eliminate wasteful spending and delayed projects. One step we need to take, among many others, is partnering with communities and city agencies to expand our housing stock through modular housing, the repurposing of vacant units and/or commercial buildings, the construction of accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and single-room occupancy housing such as the Barth Hotel. Further, we need to extend the time frame for those who have projects in the pipeline to meet compliance with the Expanding Housing Affordability ordinance, but only for the applicants that have been making progress in moving through the city’s permitting process.

Similar to my platform on public safety, the affordable-housing crisis will require a regional approach to create effective solutions. One key part of that is identifying vacant public lands for manufactured housing, which can be produced at 40 percent cheaper than on-site new construction, with one home completed every six days. Lastly, the housing demand of our senior population is growing, and we need to look ahead to prevent them from falling into homelessness.

Denver has historically been a car-centric city. Should the city take significant road space from cars for other forms of transportation (walking, rolling, biking, scootering, bus, etc.)?

Denver deserves a mayor with bold proposals to improve our transit future. We should work with Aurora and Lakewood to connect the Colfax Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) from one end of the metro area to the other, transforming bus service throughout the region. As mayor, I’ll also create a mass transit connection from downtown to River Mile, Auraria campus and Empower Field to reduce our dependence on single-occupancy vehicles while prioritizing the well-being of cyclists and pedestrians.

We can’t accomplish an increase in available housing stock across different income levels and make it generally more affordable to live in Denver if we aren’t developing transit options at the same time. Simply adding more cars, more roads, more congestion, and more pollution isn’t a viable path. Transit options, multimodal corridors and greater neighborhood connectivity are all principles that have to work together if the city’s population is to continue to grow and prosper in a 21st-century economy.

What would you do if the Denver Broncos demand public dollars as a requirement for keeping the stadium in the Mile High City?

Our professional sports teams provide a key economic benefit to our city, but taxpayers already shouldered the burden of the current stadium. Additionally, a metropolitan district was created for proposed future development of the parking lot, which has added to the value of the site. I would find common ground with the owners to keep the Broncos in Denver, without using public dollars to pay for the stadium, and would also explore connectivity from downtown to the Auraria campus to the stadium.

Violence during let-out in LoDo has been an issue for years. Would you support a staggered closing time that ends at 4 a.m.?

This is a complicated challenge, and we’d need to consult with the experts and thoroughly evaluate the data before determining whether it’s the right fit for our city and if it would exacerbate violence or help alleviate our public safety issues. I would consider a pilot project with a small number of operators, to see the lessons learned before assuming any type of staggering of the closing hours. I would also want input from our City Attorney on what the potential implications would be to other areas of the city that want the same opportunity to stay open longer.

What question do you wish we'd asked?

"What organizations are you endorsed by?"

Colorado Professional Fire Fighters, Denver Firefighters Local 858, FOP Denver Police Lodge 27, AFSCME Council 76, Southwest Mountain States Regional Council of Carpenters, Unite Here Local 23, UFCW Local 7, Metro Housing Coalition, El Semanario and Colorado BlueFlower Fund.

See answers from Kelly Brough, Thomas Wolf, Lisa Calderón, Andy Rougeot, Ean Tafoya, Renate Behrens, Debbie Ortega, James Walsh, Robert Treta, Leslie Herod, Chris Hansen, Mike Johnston, Trinidad Rodriguez, Aurelio Martinez, Terrance Roberts and Al Gardner.
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